March 9, 1991 protest

March 9, 1991 protest refers to a mass rally on the streets of Belgrade that turned into a riot featuring vicious clashes between the protesters and police. It was organized by Vuk Drašković's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) on March 9, 1991. Two people died in the ensuing violence.

Led by Drašković and SPO, people were called to the streets to demand resignations of TV Belgrade director Dušan Mitević, as well as four other editors and on-air personalities: Slavko Budihna, Predrag Vitas (head of the news division), Ivan Krivec, and Sergej Šestakov. The immediate reason for demanding resignations cited by Drašković was the commentary by Slavko Budihna shown on state television's main newscast Dnevnik 2 on February 16 in which this journalist referred to SPO as "an extension of Franjo Tuđman's politics".

Still, while the immediate cause for demonstration was specific and narrow, this protest also had a wider ideological aspect. From its very name Protest against red star over to numerous examples of royalist insignia among the crowds, Drašković was very much whipping up old Chetnik - Partisan issues that were at the time beginning to be talked about again publicly after almost 50 years.


Events leading up to the protest

Though Drašković and SPO had already been engaged in the, often dirty and personal, political battle with Slobodan Milošević, his wife Mira Marković, and other pillars of their regime in Serbia, this antagonism particularly intesified following the parliamentary and presidential elections of 9 December 1990 where Milošević and Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) scored an overwhelming victory, but Drašković also got over 800,000 votes for president that made him the most significant opposition power. Since their access to state-controlled media (either print or electronic) was fairly limited, Drašković and SPO frequently criticised and ridiculed the regime through their own weekly magazine called Srpska reč that was edited by his wife Danica. One of the issues in February 1991 featured Mira Marković with a Stalin-like moustache and a headline "Šta hoće generali" (What Do Generals Want).

The regime's answer was an anti-SPO commentary read by TV Belgrade's journalist Slavko Budihna during central daily newscast Dnevnik 2. Among other things Budihna read:

...nearly all of appearances by SPO members in the media, including the letter to Franjo Tuđman, published in Vjesnik this week, have finally revealed in full sight what was clear long ago - that the Serbian political right is fully prepared to co-operate with pro-Ustashe and profascist Croatia, or any other extreme right movement for that matter, despite it being against the vital historical interests of the Serbian people.[1]

Drasković's response to this blatant misuse of state airwaves was a demand for resignation of TV Belgrade's key personnel followed by a call to the streets. In addition to resignations, Drašković also wanted the story retracted. From then on Drašković often referred to TV Belgrade in derisive terms as "TV Bastille":

TV Belgrade continues to spread lies about us... They're obviously intent on repeating the propaganda crime that, along with election theft, led the communists to election victory in December... TV Bastille must be liberated... No force should scare us, nor stop us... With bravery and strength on March 9th at noon in front of Prince Mihailo.[2]

Political scene in Serbia at the time

Although on its last legs, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia still formally existed in March 1991, and Socialist Republic of Serbia was its biggest and most populous constituent part. Multi-party political system was introduced the year before, meaning that instead of the League of Communists of Serbia (SKS) that exclusively dominated for 45 years, Serbian political landscape was now again dotted with many parties for the first time since the early 1940s.

However, only three of them could boast any kind of actual significance: Slobodan Milošević's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), Drašković's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), and Democratic Party (DS) led at the time by Dragoljub Mićunović and also featuring high-ranking members Zoran Đinđić and Vojislav Koštunica both of whom would rise to greater prominence in years to come.

Milošević firmly controlled all the pillars of power: he himself was the President of the Republic; his party SPS, thanks to its huge parliamentary majority (194 seats out of 250), easily formed a stable government headed by Prime Minister Dragutin Zelenović (former communist apparatchik, at that moment extremely loyal to Milošević). Additionally, through party-installed people like Mitević et al., Milošević had a fairly tight grip on TV Belgrade, frequently using it for his own ends, although still not as blatantly and brazenly as he would later throughout the 1990s once the wars, UN sanctions and general decay set in.

On the other hand, opposition led most prominently by SPO (19 parliamentary seats out of 250) and to a lesser extent DS (7 seats) was often plagued by internal squabbles, ego clashes, and low-level skullduggery. When SPO called the protest for March 9, DS was on the fence. Their relationship with SPO at the time was somewhat on the cool side because two of DS prominent figures, Kosta Čavoški (one of the 13 founders) and Nikola Milošević (high-ranking member), recently left the party to form their own and were now openly co-operating with SPO. On top of that, ideologically speaking, the two parties had very little in common other than their general anti-Milošević stance. And this protest initially was not clearly anti-Milošević as much as it was brought on by the feud SPO had with state TV.

In the end, no DS members were on the list of speakers but many individually still decided to show up at the protest.

Security situation in Yugoslavia at the time

In addition to political turbulence in each of the country's six constituent republics, the security situation in SFR Yugoslavia was deteriorating as well. Incidents were especially frequent in the Socialist Republic of Croatia where the two constituent ethnic groups Croats and Serbs began clashing following the May 1990 election victory of nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) that pursued the separatist agenda of breaking away from SFR Yugoslavia.

Just days before March 9th, the incident in Pakrac occurred. Then in April 1991 the Plitvice Lakes incident took place.

Events of the day

March 9, 1991 was a pleasant, partly sunny, slightly windy Saturday in late winter. The protest was scheduled to take place at the Republic Square in Belgrade, a wide open area right in the city's downtown core. There were incidents throughout different parts of the city before the protest started as the police tried, often brutally, to impede the stream of people heading to the square. Even the scheduled speakers, including Drašković, had trouble making it into the square. The impressive crowd (in excess of 150,000 by some estimates) probably surprised even Drašković himself as entire area was literally flooded with people. Drašković then decided to seek permission from nearby National Theater personnel to address the crowds from its balcony, which provided a nice view of the entire square.

Permission was granted by then-director Vida Ognjenović (incidentally a prominent DS member), so Drašković took to the balcony and began a fiery speech often interrupted by thunderous applause:

I'm not going to tell you everything that has happened since this morning; we all broke through different police barriers and therein showed that no obstacle will stop us.
I salute you, heroes!
I said it a month ago - even when the bolsheviks didn't believe me - and I'll say it again right this moment: today, in front of our righteous Prince [referring to the statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenović that dominates the square], and especially in few moments when we start marching on TV Bastille, we will show Serbian heart and we will show Serbian persistence.
Unfortunately, we have no other way!
The President of the Republic [Slobodan Milošević] has to weigh between two choices in front of him: on one end of the scale are your lives as well as lives of many policemen because I heard our boys seized a lot of automatic weaponry in fights with police today - on that scale there are so many lives, Serbia's freedom, honour, and peace - while on the other end of the scale there are only 5 resignations and 1 retraction.
Let the President decide what he wants, I have made my choice: I will lead the charge on Television today, fully ready to die!

His last proclamation put the present police squadron (led by Milošević loyalist Radovan "Badža" Stojičić) in full alert mode. After Drašković finished, other people took the microphone, among them Milan Paroški, Leon Koen, Milan Komnenić, Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz etc.

Around noon, in the middle of Mihiz's speech, police moved into the square with tear gas and full blown battle began. However, overwhelmed and outnumbered by the crowd the police retreated while trying to keep the angry protesters in check with water cannons. The situation was deteriorating by the second, flower beds were being overturned and broken off into smaller pieces of concrete to be thrown onto police vehicles. Drašković did not seem phased by scenes of violence below, and if anything was only spurring them on. At one point he even bizarrely yelled "Juuuuuuriš" (Chaaaaaarge) into the microphone the way a field general would at the scene of battle.

The protest then spilled into adjoining streets and squares and most of the downtown Belgrade soon resembled a war zone. By this time, the police managed to regroup and reinforce their numbers, and began responding and attacking a lot more forcefully.

In the afternoon, Drašković, along with a large group of protesters, unsuccessfully attempted to storm the National Assembly of Serbia session. As he exited the building, he was arrested along with SPO deputy president Jovan Marjanović. Among the policemen handling Drašković's arrest was Naser Orić.[3]

In the evening, Milošević took to the public airwaves to address the nation. While not mentioning anyone by name he charchterized the day's events as being orchestrated by "forces of chaos and madness threatening to restore everything that the people of Serbia rose against half a century ago". Finally, even tanks rolled onto the streets to protect constitutional order. Radio B92 and Studio B television were banned and stopped broadcasting.


Unfortunately, the protest claimed two lives. Around 3:30pm while running away from the crowd of protesters in Masarikova Street near Beograđanka, policeman Nedeljko Kosović (54 years old) died from repeated blows to the head. Later in the day, protester Branivoje Milinović (17 years old) was killed by a stray bullet. The circumstances of his death are conflicting as some reports claim he died as the crowd was storming the SR Serbia parliament building[4] while others say he was killed by policemen on the corner of Admirala Geprata Street and Kneza Miloša Street opened rubber bullet fire on protesters in front of London Cafe.[5] The investigation into his death was recently reopened.

Additionally, 203 protesters were injured and further 108 were arrested.

Immediate aftermath

March 10

The very next day, March 10, after order was somewhat restored, a large crowd again began to gather during late evening hours - but this time in front of Terazije fountain. The protest now assumed a more civil tone, although there were still incidents on Branko's Bridge when a group of 5,000 University of Belgrade students heading into the city centre from their residence in Studentski Grad in order to join the protesters got stopped by police. Pepper spray was used and some of the students were beaten, but all of them were eventually allowed to pass through and join the crowd at Terazije (among the individuals negotiating with the police on the bridge was Democratic Party (DS) member Zoran Đinđić).

Gatherings in front of the Terazije fountain were notably led and moderated by actor Branislav Lečić with various figures from public life in Serbia such as screenwriter Dušan Kovačević, actor Rade Šerbedžija, and even Patriarch Pavle taking turns addressing the crowd. In his speeches, Lecic often referred to the rally as "Velvet Revolution" while holding a stuffed panda toy and drawing parallels with the Czechoslovakian protests of November 1989.

The protest also expanded in terms of the political figures that joined it with DS members now officially taking part. Also, the anti-regime component was now much more prominently displayed among the crowds. Officially though, protesters, majority of whom were university and high school students, demanded freedom for Drašković and Jovan Marjanović, and in addition to earlier stated requests for the resignation of Dušan Mitević, they now wanted the Minister of Interior Radmilo Bogdanović to resign too. Also they wanted the broadcast ban for Radio B92 and RTV Studio B to be lifted.

March 11

On March 11, the Milošević's regime attempted to regroup by organizing a mass counter-rally at their old stomping grounds Ušće. Called under the name "For the defense of the Republic, for constitutionality, freedom, and democracy", the rally attempted to show that protesters at the Republic Square and Terazije in no way represented the wishes and desires of the majority of Serbian population. Using previously developed and tested astroturfing methods, regime bussed many workers into Belgrade from other parts of Serbia for the occasion and also used its grip on state TV to inflate the crowd size. Still, a good portion of the crowd was there on its own volition, especially older individuals and many pensioners that were always Milošević's core support. Instead to Milošević himself who did not address the gathered crowd, the task of speaking was left to his party's most publicly prominent members and idealogues at the time: Mihailo Marković, Dušan Matković, Živorad Igić, Radoman Božović, Petar Škundrić, etc. The most controversial speech of the day was Matković's, at times referring to protesters as "hooligans" and calling the pro-regime crowd to "do away with them".

Still, the anti-regime protests persisted and after four days of mostly peaceful demonstration (there were further skirmishes with police on March 11) the protesters managed to achieve their aims: Drašković and Marjanović were freed while Mitević and Bogdanović got replaced.

See also


External links

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